Randall Thompson

1899 1984

Randall Thompson



Randall Thompson was an American composer and beloved teacher, known primarily for his choral music. His output also includes other genres such as the symphony, opera, chamber music and piano pieces. His most famous work is the choralAlleluia. His style was greatly influenced by the great Italian Renaissance Composers and can be described as conservative and Neo-classical, combining old with new.

Ira Randall Thompson (not to be confused with his friend, Harvard colleague and fellow composer Virgil Thomson) was born on 21 April 1899 in New York City. His father was an English teacher and academics were of great importance to his family. Randall’s musical beginnings took place at the family’s summer home in Vienna, Maine, where he found an old parlour reed organ. Around 1915, he wrote his first works at this organ—a piano sonata and a Christmas part-song. The next year, Thompson entered the prestigious Harvard University, where he was rejected from the Glee Club. Later in his career, he often stated of this rejection, ‘my life has been an attempt to strike back’. While at Harvard, Thompson had the opportunity to study with Edward Burlinghame Hill. The conductor of the chorus, Archibald T. Davison, eventually became a mentor to Thompson, despite his initial rejection.

Thompson left for Rome in 1922 after winning a scholarship to the American Academy at Rome, where he studied with Gian Francesco Malipiero. It was Malipiero’s influence that first led Thompson to discover the polyphonic choral music from the Renaissance.

After returning to the U.S., Thompson began his teaching career in 1927 at Wellesley College, where he taught harmony and counterpoint, in addition to conducting the choir. Also, in the late 1920s, Thompson was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation grant, which he used to study the level of music education at the college level in the U.S. The results of his study, which were published as the book College Music (1935), helped reform music education at the highest academic levels. He went on to create the course ‘The History of Music’ with the Harvard visiting committee, ensuring that students learn above music from Gregorian chant to the present day.

He then taught at a succession of colleges, including the University of California at Berkeley, Curtis Institute of Music (acting head), University of Virginia at Charlottesville and Princeton before settling at Harvard in 1948. In 1953, Thompson was appointed the chair of the music department, a position he held until 1957. He was also the first Walter Bigelow Rosen professor of music, retiring in 1965.

Thompson’s success in both teaching and composition are evidenced by his one-time colleague, James Haar, who wrote, ‘Randall Thompson’s choral works are a shining reflection of the joy and creative skill with which he taught the musical craft—of Palestrina and Lasso, of Monteverdi and Schütz, of Bach and Handel. It has been his belief that music of this craft is timeless in its nature, and can form part of the basis of a composer’s working vocabulary without loss to his individual talent. In this he is a true classicist and an academic in the best sense’.

Thompson’s early works consisted mostly of songs and were quite diverse in style. His earliest vocal writing can be found inThe Five Odes of Horace (1924). His style solidified, however, after beginning his studies in Rome. He strived to compose in the style of the Renaissance masters, while employing elements of the 20th century. In the process, he became one of the leading choral composers in America.His choral works are unique in the fact that they are approachable for amateur choirs, yet tasteful enough for professional choirs. The majority of his choral works were commissioned by amateur choirs for religious, commemorative or celebratory purposes.

The opportunity to compose his first work based on a biblical text came in 1935 in the form of a commission from the League of Composers, where he was an officer, to write a work for chorus. More specifically, he was to write for the combined Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society. During a visit to the Worcester Art Museum that summer, Thompson laid his eyes on a version of ‘The Peaceable Kingdom’ by the primitive American painter, Edward Hicks. His work also shares the name of the painting. He was inspired by the painting itself, but perhaps even more so by the biblical passage it portrayed from Isaiah 11:6-9, which ends in the following text: ‘For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea’.

This theme of the wicked being destroyed while the good go to heaven appealed greatly to Thompson, prompting him to read all 60 chapters of Isaiah. When he came across a particularly special passage, he would write it out. He paired the chordal progression of his music with the narrative of Isaiah, creating similarities to Brahms’ method of preparing verses for hisGerman Requiem. Using his experience, he went on to compose many more large works on sacred texts, including theMass of the Holy Spirit, Requiem and settings based on Saint Luke— The Nativity(1965) and The Passion.

Thompson’s famous one-word Alleluia can be heard in a variety of settings, including church services, concert and academic ceremonies (Harvard Commencement). The story surrounding this well-known work is also fascinating. The work was commissioned by Serge Koussevitzky and the trustees of the Boston Symphony Orchestra for the opening of the new Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in 1940. The plan was that G. Wallace ‘Woody’ Woodworth would lead the entire student body in this anthem to symbolize the centre’s mission as a place for music performance.

Thompson was pressed for time as he was still putting the final touches on another commission. The opening was planned for 8 July, but he did not start composing until 1 July. Even on the day of the performance, there was no music. Woodworth was getting especially anxious when finally the music arrived 45 minutes before the performance. He assured his equally anxious choir, after one glance at the score, ‘well, text at least is one thing we won’t have to worry about’. To this day, Thompson’sAlleluia is performed each summer at the opening of Berkshire Music Center.

It was a dark time in the world when Thompson composed the Alleluia as the French had just fallen to the Nazis. Thompson gave explicit instructions regarding the anthem’s tempo, ‘lento’; “the music in my particularAlleluia cannot be made to sound joyous…here it is comparable to the Book of Job, where it is written, ‘The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord’”.

Other choral works include The Testament of Freedom (1943) based on texts from Thomas Jefferson and Frostiana (1959) on the texts of Robert Frost. His final choral work,Twelve Canticles (1983), was written just one year before his death.

In addition to his choral music, Thompson composed three symphonies, two string quartets, some piano pieces and one short opera—Solomon and Balkis (1942). While all three of his symphonies are of an equally high quality, it was his Symphony no. 2 (1931) that attracted the attention of Leonard Bernstein, who was then a student at the Curtis Institute. Bernstein’s debut appearance as a conductor was with this work at the Berkshire Music Center Orchestra on 12 July 1939. In 1968, he recorded the symphony with the New York Philharmonic.

Thompson continued to compose until just months before his death. He died on 9 July 1984 in Boston, Massachusetts at the age of 85.